At some point in every protagonist’s journey, they become confident, sure of their abilities. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is that journey for Lara Croft. Everything she has learned up to this point is put to the test, while the characters helping drive her journey are more fleshed out and human. Most of the 14-hour long story is riveting, with luscious jungles and dark caves to explore.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider follows Lara as she attempts to end a Mayan apocalypse. Usually, the main antagonist, Trinity, is the cause of mayhem. However, by taking a relic out of a tomb Lara has triggered the cataclysm. After Trinity takes the dagger from her, it falls to her to reunite them with the silver box of Ix Chel in order to stop them from reshaping the world. This isn’t just Lara’s darkest adventure because of the story, but also because of the danger that follows her. As usual, danger follows Lara, and she follows danger putting the people around her in danger.
In previous outings, this hasn’t been as highlighted as it is in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. A lot of this is due to how pronounced the character development is. Lara’s best friend Jonah is almost as important as Lara is to the story here, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider is better for it. Lara relies on Jonah to help her get through her internal struggles of triggering this apocalypse. Having a support character play as strongly as Jonah does is a smart move in a series built around one character.
While anyone familiar with the Tomb Raider reboot franchise will feel right at home in this outing, there are plenty of gameplay changes to the combat and exploration that make Shadow of the Tomb Raider feel fresh and new. The most notable one for me was the update to the stealth mechanics. Even though Lara is more confident in her combat abilities, I tended to play in a more stealthy manner, and I think my experience was more enjoyable because of it. Vines crawling down walls can be hidden in, allowing for takedown opportunities against enemies. Mud pits allow Lara to cover herself in mud and hide against mud covered walls in plain sight.
Later in the game when enemies gain night vision goggles to hunt our hero is when things got a little more interesting. Hiding in vegetation wasn’t viable anymore, as the night vision could see right through. Covering Lara in mud hid Lara from the goggles and allowing the vegetation to conceal her once more. These encounters tended to be the most versatile, letting Lara show off more of her skills than a lot of the others.
A lot of the stealth changes tended to be on the environmental side of things. There are classic Tomb Raider stealth takedowns from above, from underwater, and from foliage. The most brutal one, though, is an all new takedown. When above an enemy, Lara is able shoot an enemy with an arrow and hang them from a branch, strangling them. Like most things in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, this can be upgraded. From the outset, enemies can be seen hanging from branches, but after purchasing an upgrade, Lara can hide them in tree canopies after a stealth takedown. More than anything, the skill tree allows players to play how they want to play. As she progresses through the story, more unlock options in the three different skill trees become available. One tree focuses on exploration, one on combat, and the other on stealth. So if I want to make Lara more stealthy, I can purchase abilities that make me an even stronger invisible warrior.
While the story and characters generally propel players forward, once Lara hits the ancient city of Paititi things almost grind to a stand-still. Lara spends a lot of time here, and there is a lot of backtracking within the area for a couple of hours as she gets to know the inhabitants and solve some of their problems. At the time, I didn’t appreciate it for what it was, but after finishing the campaign I understood a little better. Understanding each of the main characters introduced was incredibly important by the end of the story, and even within the last few hours of Shadow of the Tomb Raider things began to click into place.
While her previous two outings have featured a lot of enemy encounters, I feel like Shadow of the Tomb Raider had a lot less this time around. This isn’t a detractor either. Lara is at her best when she’s searching for the hidden secrets of Peru, or scaling large vertical walls, and Shadow is no exception. There are a lot of tombs for Lara to explore, from piranha laden wells, to swinging platforms guarded by the threatening Yaaxil. There is a ton of diversity within these tombs, and several of them had me scratching my head for a little while. The tombs in Shadow of the Tomb Raider require players to think critically about the environmental clues illuminated by survival instincts.
A new rappel feature also adds a new level of verticality to exploration. Large overhangs allow Lara to access areas she wouldn’t have been able to in previous outings. Once dangling in the air she can swing back and forth to navigate large jumps, or even run along walls to grab onto shallow ledges. A few sections later in the game require players to navigate large traversal sections and utilize all of these abilities almost in tandem.
As the story progresses, and the apocalypse draws nearer, large events like mudslides and tsunamis start to ravage the world. Players of the franchise will recognize these, because they replace the sections that used to occur often that has Lara running and traversing platforms and walls while enemies shoot at her. These replace those almost entirely, and fit better into Shadow of the Tomb Raider as a whole. The constant barrage of bullets would have felt unwelcome in a game so focused on the exploration of the world and lore. Making the environment part of the enemy is a really smart move that pays off.
The beauty and tone of the world really stood out to me as well. An opening scene in Cozumel kicks things off during a celebration. Fireworks go off around Lara, and the music feels right at home. The luscious jungles teem with wildlife, some run from Lara while leopards are more aggressive. Paititi is a huge city with tons of hidden collectibles and people to talk to. Even the underwater sections (and there are more here than ever before), are dangerous while moray eels and piranhas are ready to attack at all times.
While on the subject of the dangerous wildlife, the underwater segments provide dangers two-fold. The constant threat of running out of breath swimming coupled with being attacked by the aggressive fish is always at the back of players’ minds. Luckily, survival instincts highlight seaweed that Lara can hide in, or air pockets she can use if she is in a pinch. The helpfulness of survival instincts can’t be understated either, as even in combat scenarios it helps plan stealth attacks. Mud pits, vine walls, mud walls, and foliage are all highlighted when survival instincts is in use, making this ability more useful than ever.
The last two things I want to bring up both involve gameplay, but in different ways. The first is that Shadow of the Tomb Raider gives players more difficulty options than ever before. Players can craft how difficult they want their experience to be by ramping up exploration and puzzle difficulty. These can be small things like not having a prompt to grab onto ledges she is slipping off of, or Lara not helping players solve difficult puzzles. These options don’t just play into the different difficulties selected at the beginning, but can be changed separately in the menu at any time. The final point is the inclusion of different outfits. Different upper half and lower half outfit options have different stat boosts, but players aren’t locked into full outfits, and can change each half to suit their gameplay style.
To be honest, I didn’t get around to playing Rise of the Tomb Raider until about a month ago in preparation for this launch. I started it and never finished it. I didn’t like the setting, the supernatural element of that outing, and it felt detached from a lot of the supporting cast. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great game that I enjoyed playing once I got into it a little more, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider pretty much corrected everything I didn’t like about it. The setting is more engaging and fun to explore, character development is far superior, and the combat encounters felt designed for Lara to be a hunter. Lara has moved from the hunted to the hunter here, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider is better for it.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider launches September 14th for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC. This review is based on an Xbox One copy of the game provided by the publisher. Preorders are still available here.